Thursday, 28 February 2019

Paris in the Dark - Robert Olen Butler

There was a part of me that thought I was being a bit arrogant posting a whole load of old reviews on my blog and calling the venture ‘retro reviewing’. My intention was innocent enough - to have all my reviews under one roof. I’m glad I did for the internet is a surprising place sometimes and after one posting of a trio of books I had read and reviewed I received a comment from a publicist offering me a copy of a further book in the series. I was thrilled. So thanks to Katherine Sunderland of Oldcastle Books for getting in touch and sending me a copy of Paris in the Dark.

A well drawn character in a book can jump out of the page at you sometimes. When that character is the protagonist from several books it’s almost like hanging out with an old friend. I was so pleased to reacquaint myself with Christopher Marlowe Cobb. I wanted to see how he’d been doing. I find him alive and well; grown up a bit, aged very slightly but wearing his maturity well. A little less impetuous than previously but still the James Bond of the 1900’s!!

So I knew what to expect when I dived into this book and I wasn’t disappointed, not for a second. Butler writes an intelligent, action packed story with just enough romance to maintain a balance between all the elements that make up this pacy Parisian spy tale. 

It’s atmospheric, well researched so much so that you almost fail to appreciate the subtlety of the research in the descriptions of the streets, vehicles and their interiors and the atmosphere of a city in a war dominated country. I guess if you want to explore the themes more deeply you could find some political and cultural parallels  within our contemporary world but it’s okay if you don’t for the story is so keenly plotted, the narrative so well paced that you can gain much satisfaction from this Pulitzer prize winning writer.

It’s unashamed story telling with no defiance of structure and language conventions, a chronological narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. A crescendo like climax that has you missing some words in your eagerness to find out what happens. And of course there are no punches pulled, there’s some violence but it makes a point. War is messy. Being a spy is a perilous occupation. I don’t believe the story would possess the credibility it does if Butler soft pedalled. (Actually I think there was maybe less violence than in some of the previous Cobb books!) 

For those interested here is a link to my retro review of the previous Cobb stories.

And while we're at it how about a link to another Robert Olen Butler novel, Perfume River!

But I’m left wondering what Kit Cobb will get up to next? Over to you Robert Olen Butler!! Write me another? 

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

“The world is large, larger than we sometimes allow it to be. “ Thus says Tanna Goff towards the end of Washington Black. And yet given the time frame in which the novel is set Washington Black has made the world, physically, a smaller place. For this book sees him journey from Barbados to Virginia to the Arctic to Nova Scotia to England, Amsterdam and Morocco. Quite a feat for an erstwhile slave boy from a sugar plantation. And yet you sense that this journey is more than mere physical travelling. It is the journey of a soul learning of life, of people, mostly himself, and exploring the very nature of what it is to be free. 

When you think of a slave you invariably think about freedom, a central theme in the book and one that seems to be occupying a number of writers in these contemporary times of ours. I think of Elizabeth Lowry, I think of Ben Okri. This story explores freedom beyond the physical ideas of freedom in terms of slave ownership but also of artistic, scientific, creative and emotional freedoms. It beggars the question, are any of us really free?

“Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people, “ a truism spoken by Christopher Wilde, Washington’s first ‘mentor’ , who sees more in the little boy than his cruel plantation running brother, Erasmus. Christopher, ‘Titch’ Wilde is an enigma, a paradox who seems to grasp the very essence of things one moment and loses them the next.
“Children know everything about beauty,” Titch countered softly. “It is adults who have forgotten. “

And Washington is a beautiful soul exposed too young to the cruelty of life and learning at a young age that survival is a 24/7 process. You think, as you begin to read, that this is going to be another tale of slavery and freedom in the style perhaps of Roots and 12 Years a Slave but like Roots the journey takes us beyond slavery and further than we could possibly have imagined. There’s adventure, there’s horror, it’s part fugitive story, part survivor story. It’s multi stranded with all the strands cemented together with Edugyan’s flowing prose and detailed characterisations. What better way to make your points than through an adventure story. Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018 Ms. Edugyan ably demonstrates the art of the story teller to entertain and enlighten. 

I also believe it to be one of those books for whom everyone will take something different from it and different aspects will resonate for some time after you’ve finished it. Something that struck me whilst reading of Wash’s artistic ability was how much in the way of skills and talents are lost to people enslaved in whatever capacity. And only when fate or chance intervenes do these talents come to light.

I found the ending a little ambiguous as if Wash’s realisation that Titch was as much a slave as he was, sufficed . The story could end. And I guess it could and it did!! But you’re left thinking and wondering. Testament to the writer’s skill I guess that you come to care so much about these characters and you want to know what happens to them, You want to know that they going to be okay. But in a story such as this, the reader’s own imagination is called into play.

My thanks to Nudge Books for a copy of this fine story.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Finding Dorothy - a Taster

From an evening of new books, a book launch breakfast to an online buddy read you’d think those quirky Quercus guys cannot possibly come up with anything new. But they have. And it shall be called ‘Tantalise a Book Blogger’ ! 

Quite unexpectedly through my letter box this week I received a slim, pamphlet type publication with a postcard, called ‘Finding Dorothy’. It would appear to be the first two chapters in a forthcoming book by Elizabeth Letts about L.Frank Baum’s widow Maud and THAT movie! 

It would have been rude not to do so therefore I read the pamphlet. Thank you very much, Quercus, for now I want to read the rest of the book and I want to read it now!!

For in the first chapter the scene is set for a very determined lady to champion the integrity and intent of her beloved husband’s ‘modern’ (1900?) fairy tale. Dammit I know this is a spoiler but I can’t help it. There’s a sequence towards the end of chapter two where Maud witnesses one of Judy Garland’s first attempts at singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ . Hairs. Back. Of. Neck. And the redoubtable Maud offers her opinion as to the treatment of the song. And Judy listens. And lets her voice soar.

But that soaring voice …somehow this girl, a stranger to Maud, had conveyed exactly what it felt like to be just spreading her wings, waiting to fly. Even now, in her eighth decade, Maud had not forgotten this complicated emotion: the desire to escape, to get away, to grow up - the fate of every girl.
Every girl except Dorothy.

Two chapters of intrigue. Two chapters about one of the most iconic movies of all time. Two chapters? Please. I mean you ARE going to send me the real thing aren't you? I mean there has to be a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, right? 

Friday, 22 February 2019

An Interview with Susan Elliot Wright

After I read The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, after I had dried my tears, I found my head was brimming with questions. And Susan Elliot Wright was kind enough to grant me an interview where I was able to put those questions to her. I am very grateful.

As a reader I found this a distressing book to read; that is not to say that I didn’t like it, I did but I felt myself emotionally in pieces afterwards. And if it did that to me what on earth did writing it do to you?! I am wondering how you managed to write it without breaking down frequently? Or maybe you did? 

It was very hard to write in that respect, and I did find myself writing through tears on several occasions. I always try to put myself in my character’s shoes, so that it’s almost as though I’m going through what they’re going through, and so I feel what they feel.

I think writers who tackle subjects such as these are brave. I thank you for your courage in writing this book. I think fiction is a great vehicle to raise consciousness  to a wider readership for sensitive issues than a more turgid non fiction approach to the subject. But how did the idea of creating a fiction around postpartum psychosis occur to you? 

Cornelia’s experience was something I’d explored in a short story I wrote a few years ago, and initially, I hadn’t set out to write about postpartum psychosis. I just knew I wanted to write about the early days and weeks of motherhood, and how terribly difficult they can be for some women. The psychosis sort of crept in on the back of that and took over the story. It was only when I started working on a novel about a woman who coveted another woman’s child that Cornelia started knocking on the door of my brain. “That woman is me,” she said. “Time to tell my story!” 

 I enjoyed the way you structured the story. The ‘now’ and ‘then’ time frames. Layer after layer of the events revealing the full extent of Leah’s unravelling. Was this always your intention to structure the story in this way ?

Yes, this was always the intention. I love reading dual narratives, but also I wanted to show how Cornelia/Leah’s experience changed her to the extent that she almost became a different person. I wanted to show the woman she was before all the tragedy – a young woman in love with her husband and dreaming of the children they’d have together, and the woman she became as a result of the tragedies – damaged, profoundly sad, and still desperate for a child to love.

 The ending won’t leave me. Although you wrote it beautifully I wasn’t prepared for it and I had that inviolable sense that surely someone could have done something to avert it. But then that is the really the point of the story isn’t it? To show just how devastating this cruel condition is. And how it can go significantly unnoticed. But was this the ending you always had in mind? Was there ever a temptation to go for a ‘softer’ approach? 

Yes, this was always the ending I had in mind, although I did try alternatives because I knew it was risky in that some people wouldn’t like it. I tried a number of different endings, but they felt contrived, a cop-out, and the last thing I want to do is insult the reader, so ultimately, I had to be true to Cornelia and her experiences. While it’s not a ‘happy’ ending, I didn’t feel it was an ‘unhappy’ one for Cornelia, who reaches a certain tranquility at the end.

 A question I am hesitant to ask but I must and that is how much this book is based on your own personal experience? You touched on it briefly in the preface to the book. But I imagine that you had to do some extensive and careful research too? Could you tell us a little about that?

Cornelia had a much more difficult time than I did, but I did draw quite heavily on my own experience of early motherhood while writing this book (and in the original short story). It was only when I started researching post-natal psychosis and was talking to a perinatal psychiatrist about my own experience, that it became clear that I’d probably had a mild form of it myself, although of course it was never diagnosed (I was diagnosed with postnatal depression much later, but that wasn’t the same thing).The psychiatrist I talked to gave me the name of a wonderful organisation called Action on Postpartum Psychosis, which helped enormously with my research, in particular, I was able to read lot of personal accounts which I found incredibly useful.

 I loved the metaphor of the crows and found it wonderfully sustained through out the book. How did that particular image come to fruition?

For me, crows will forever be associated with early motherhood, because there were lots of them in my back garden when I was a new mum, and I remember standing at the window, watching them as I jiggled a crying baby in my arms. Crows work well as a metaphor because of all the superstition surrounding them – the idea that they are harbingers of death and so on. Cornelia’s relationship with them is ambiguous – she sees them alternately as enemies and as friends. I felt this reflected not only her unsettled state of mind, but also that feeling a new mum sometimes has that the people who love her are also being critical of her mothering.

 When I read a book like this I fervently hope for it to reach as many people as possible to educate but also to give some hope to the silent sufferers. Did you have such an aim when you started to write the book? 

I always wanted to raise awareness about the difficulties some women suffer in the early days of motherhood, but when the psychosis strand started to emerge, I knew this was something that needed to be talked about. There’s still a taboo around maternal mental health problems, and I think it would be healthier if we talked a lot more about postnatal depression and post-natal psychosis. It’s my hope that, after reading this book, someone might be a little more likely to recognise a developing mental health problem, either in themselves, or in another new mum.

 How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals? 

Like many authors, I am a terrible procrastinator and I’m easily distracted! I have a lovely study at home to work in, but often end up doing another load of laundry, sorting out household admin or faffing about on social media. So it’s often after lunch by the time I knuckle down to actual writing. I usually work much better away from home – the library is great for writing, or coffee shops (when I can afford it!) The background hum of the coffee machine and other people chatting gives me the sense of being in a little writing cocoon. Without the distractions of home, I can focus completely and totally on my story world – that’s when I really enjoy writing!

I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

To be honest, it doesn’t take much to have me in tears – as a child, I used to cry watching Tom and Jerry because the cat always got hurt, and Bambi nearly finished me! As an adult, I remember sobbing over two books I read at about the same time: Jude the obscure, by Thomas Hardy, and The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Beautiful, and so sad.

 And finally having been moved by this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it? 

Cornelia Blackwood took quite a lot out of me, and after delivering it, I found myself unable to write for a quite a long time, which was horrible. I’m only now tentatively starting work on a new idea. It’s very raw at the moment and I have no idea if it’ll come to fruition, but it’s about a woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship. I can’t really say more than that yet because I’m discovering what happens as I go along!

My thanks to Susan for such a frank and informative interview. The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood was published on 21st February by Simon and Schuster.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood - Susan Elliott Wright

This was a harrowing and distressing book to read and not dissipated by the author’s assurance that the scenario was a very unlikely one. Without wishing to divulge too many spoilers this book looks at the devastating effects of postpartum psychosis on one woman’s life, Cornelia, ‘Leah’, Blackwood. And of course those around her. This book also does much to show how mental illness affects not just the sufferer but those connected to the sufferer in whatever way.

I commend this book for the sensitivity with which this writer has dealt with the subject. But do not expect to sit down and enjoy a jolly, entertaining read. Be prepared to have your emotions pulverised by the events depicted in this book. 

The book is written with a ‘now’ and ;then’ dual time frame and is, what I like to call, an onion story. Layers of the past are revealed bit by bit and even if you think you can second guess what might have happened you can’t really so the ultimate reveal although implied,  is pretty upsetting to put it mildly. The writing is fresh and fast paced and urges its reader along with a spiralling urgency that makes for an anxious dash to the book’s conclusion. It’s well plotted and may hint of contrivance at times but it’s a work of fiction. As the narrative progresses the reader is frequently asking questions about what might have happened to provoke what seems to be an ostracising of Leah. 

The main character, Leah, is not especially likeable, well I didn’t find her so but when you read what she’s been through your emotions are engaged and you can understand how being likeable isn’t really high on her list of surviving in a world that has dealt her some bitter blows. Adrian, her husband, seems a little too good to be true at times but may be a character device to highlight Leah’s unravelling. 

The significance of the crows is well sustained throughout the book and although poet Ted Hughes is referenced it is not with regard to Crow but to The Thought Fox which somehow I found subliminally very clever! 

It’s a well written book, clearly of supreme importance to the writer and her passion and emotional investment in the subject shines through. It’s a book that will leave you thinking long after you’ve turned the final page. 

My thanks to Dawn Burnett producer of The Words Podcast and Simon and Schuster for an early proof copy of this compelling book.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Blood Orange - Harriet Tyce

Oh ho, Ms. Harriet Tyce! So, you thought you’d write a debut novel did you? A psychological thriller, no less, eh? S’pose you thought it would be clever to come up with an absolute page turner that has a plot twistier than a Curly Wurly? And then throw in a cast of characters as flawed as plastic saucepans?
Damn right!! 
You've nailed it!! 

Just when you think that maybe this genre has had its day, it’s as gone as the girl who’s missed the train someone comes along with a psychological thriller that has everyone sitting up and taking notice again. And that someone is Harriet Tyce. Blood Orange is as taut and tight a thriller as you’re likely to read. Sure you can argue that this genre is formulaic to a degree but like many recipes the same ingredients crop up again and again but the end result is delicious. Bake me a cake without the flour, the fat and the sugar, write me a psychological thriller without the flawed narrator, the twists and the suspense. The trick is to put the ingredients all together in the correct proportions and don’t over bake. That’s what Harriet Tyce has done here. And in the tradition of the Great British Bake Off she has created a showstopper! It's enTycing!

Alison is a lawyer with an ostensibly promising career. The author's legal background is put to good use here. I was reminded briefly of that nineties BBC series This Life because of the legal theme and what can happen in Chambers out of hours, but also the gifted young lawyer with the drink problem. She has a husband and a child. And she’s just got hold of her first murder case. I am loathe to divulge much more than that. 

The meat of the novel explores attraction and control, perfidy and jealousy not just in the main characters but some of the lesser characters too. These characters are all defined but none are especially likeable. That seems to be another ingredient of this genre. It’s as if the writer doesn’t want the reader to engage emotionally with these people, just enough but not too much. Maybe the need to remain objective adds to the tension. There is perhaps one exception in this novel, someone I felt desperately sad for. But there is no shortage of emotional response for the reader. You'll get angry, you'll get sad, you might even laugh and you will surely smile in delight that a book like this has come your way.

The title is good, sharp and visual. The motif of the orange is well sustained. And it’s a paradox for it says everything about the book yet tells you nothing!! Until you've read it of course!

It is a well paced narrative that demands you keep reading. There’s something about a debut novel. Sometimes you get a sense that an author is tentative, throwing too many words together for fear of missing something or not offering their reader enough and losing the story a little. And then you get a writer like this who seems fearless. It isn’t that the reader is unimportant it is that the author’s concern initially is for the story. Yet it’s the reader who reaps the benefits! It’s a bold book. 

My thanks to Georgina Moore at Headline Books for a proof copy and my thanks to Harriet Tyce who's presented us with a real humdinger of a tale!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Singapore Boxer - Murray Bailey

I’ll confess that often when I read I am ‘looking for literature’. This book isn’t literature. It has no pretension to be so. And it does me good to sit down and read a book like this. I had no expectations. I had a lovely personal inscription inside the front cover which warmed my heart when I opened it, although I knew nothing of the writer. So I had a look on Amazon. I saw that the Ash Carter series has a legion of loyal fans who were all giving good starred reviews. And thus I sat down contentedly to read this book. And it has done me the power of good!

Reading satisfies many different needs; intellectual, emotional and sometimes just the desire for escapism, some entertainment, something to take you out of your humdrum world and into a world you can enjoy vicariously through the precarious lives of others! Singapore Boxer is a book that satisfies that desire. That’s what Murray Bailey does and he does it damn well.

This is straightforward story telling at its best. It's an action packed adventure with an intelligent plot that is intricate enough to ensnare the reader but not so convoluted that the poor reader is lost. Its believable and factually stands up to scrutiny showing some conscientious research. The characters are substantial and real, especially Ash. The narrative is the work of an experienced writer who understands just how much to offer his audience. Scenes are set and described with the right amount of detail. Once you really get into the writer’s style you know that the details are salient to the plot overall without being obtrusive. 

The story is well plotted with Ash, an ex military policeman, as an undercover man in Malaya seeking to solve a disappearance and a death and the source of some water poisoning that is threatening the health of local villagers. The tin mining industry seems to be at the heart of these anomalies. Nothing is quite as it seems, with the potential for corruption, deceit, and arguments flaring all over and some nail biting, life threatening sequences. 

If pushed I’d say it has a lot of appeal for male readers with plenty of fist and gun action but not gratuitously violent. But there are some strong female characters too who redress the balance by injecting a humanitarian aspect to story.

This may sound paradoxical as on one hand It’s a book to keep you on your toes as you do need to keep up with plot development but it’s also an entertaining and relaxing book that isn’t asking you to look for the meaning of life. 

Given that this is the third Ash Carter thriller I am wondering why it hasn’t already been snapped up for film or TV. Someone out there is missing a trick! 

My thanks to Murray Bailey for sending me a copy of this book and for the inscription. I’m a sucker for a signed copy!!!

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Murder by Matchlight - E.C.R.Lorac

I’ll confess I’ve been sitting on this book for a good few weeks, months even. Why? Was I reluctant to read it? No, quite the opposite. I knew that once I’d read it I’d have to wait until the good folks at the British Library sent me another of their fabulous Crime Classics. So I hung on until I could stand it no more!!

There’s something of the old friend familiarity about these stories with the perceptive introductions by Martin Edwards that have become as much a part of the series for me as the stories themselves. This is my third Lorac and I was pleased to further my acquaintance with Inspector MacDonald whose skill set and acumen increases with every book! 

One ubiquitous, innocent bystander witnesses what turns out to be a murder in Regent’s Park. Clues seem to be few other than a visage illuminated by the light of a Swan Vestas match which you can almost smell. But the execution of the murder defies a rational explanation and thus the story unfolds demanding much of its C.I.D. personnel.

A palpable picture of a blackout London during the Blitz adds to the atmosphere and menace of this murder tale leading us down many garden paths before Inspector MacDonald and his able staff guide themselves and us to the correct solution. In fact the atmosphere acts as an additional character for without it things would be more obvious and clear cut. 

Lorac’s books are very much driven by skilful characterisations designed to fool both the reader and the police! No one is quite who they seem but all the clues are there if only you can be bothered to absorb every single piece of information and analyse it. The trouble is that so keen is the reader to get to the bottom of the mystery there is a danger of missing a salient piece of data and coming to an incorrect conclusion. That’s part of what makes this story so delightful. 

There is a glorious sense of a time and an age, of subterfuge and eavesdropped phone calls, of jack-the-lads and misplaced alliances, identity theft! Don’t let anyone tell you that only happens in today’s cyber times! It could only have ended in murder, surely? Then follows the ingenious and patient policing, cerebral in its execution, so little in the way of forensics to assist the police but if there were there would likely be no real story!! And of course the Blitz makes its presence felt and threatens to hamper the smooth running of the operation. 

Thanks British Library Publishing for this book. Thanks for publishing it and for sending me a copy!

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Interview with Maria Hummel - Author of Still Lives

Absolutely delighted to share with you an interview with Maria Hummel, author of Still Lives, the art thriller and Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick of 2018. Heartfelt thanks to Maria, and Lena Moses-Schmitt for facilitating the interview.

Before I read Still Lives you were unknown as a writer to me. The loss is all mine! Having now researched your works I am excited to read some more especially Motherland. Could you tell us a little about your journey as a writer?

Still Lives is my first mystery-thriller, but in other ways it builds on my prior work in fiction and poetry, particularly my novel Motherland. Studying with the poet Eavan Boland at Stanford opened the gates for me to look hard and deeply at the lives of women, especially in the contexts of stories that have been seen more often from a male perspective. In Motherland, I probe the “German question” of guilt and complicity by following a German stepmother who cares for three young children in early 1945. It’s loosely based on my father’s childhood in World War II.

Still Lives is a thriller. There are no shortage of works within the genre. What struck me about Still Lives was that in addition to it having all the hallmarks of a gripping thriller it also seemed you were digging below the surface and inviting your reader to explore ideas about art and life, art and relationships. Was this always an intention?

Absolutely. I think we’re at a wonderful moment in thriller and mystery writing where many authors are stretching the genre and asking it to mean more. And in Still Lives, I wanted to look into our fascination with female homicide victims, how some victims become celebrities of sorts while others are immediately forgotten. What makes a woman’s death juicy to us? Why can we and can’t we look away?

It pains me say it but sometimes the title of a book is almost irrelevant. In reality it often has little bearing upon the actual story. But nothing could be further from that with Still Lives!  I thought it was very clever. You start early in the book by drawing your readers to one interpretation of the title but then gradually as the story unfolds the wider meanings and word play become more apparent. Ingenious. Was the title the starting point of the book? Did it inform your plotting?

Thank you for noticing this! The title wasn’t the starting point, but it was certainly a touchstone for me. I am a poet as well as a novelist, so I am always fascinated by double meanings and word play. Funnily enough, I did not know that still lifes were historically considered a “feminine” art form until about halfway through writing the book, when I saw this information posted in a wall text at an art museum. Sometimes you get lucky like that—your subconscious picks up on something that you later consciously discover.

The book demonstrates a precise knowledge of art galleries, curating exhibitions and the contemporary US art scene in general. Is that a world you are familiar with or did you undertake massive research to create such an authentic environment in the book?

I worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles for four years, and had a number of friends who were artists or worked at other L.A. institutions. My experiences in that world formed the foundation for creating the Rocque. I also had an inkling about the economics of an art career from contemporary artists’ stories, but I learned even more from Don Thompson’s revelatory book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

Maggie clearly seems to experience some disillusionment with LA life. There is almost a stereotypical view of the city and Hollywood and a perceived glamour. Like New York, LA almost becomes an additional character in the books. What is your relationship with L.A.? Was it always your intention to set the book in the city of angels!?

Yes, it was my intention. No city in America is more important to our visual imagination. By this, I mean that the most prominent, most widespread and visible pictures we Americans create of ourselves are made by Hollywood. This is the reason that Kim Lord—the artist behind the Still Lives exhibition—chooses to set her show in L.A. As for Maggie, my narrator, her journey through L.A. is a journey through space and time, but it is also a psychological journey into her greatest fears and desires.

The actual idea of the Still Lives exhibition as an artistic concept is a chilling one in many respects. But it seems to me to feed some of the macabre fascination that many people have with murder. Does it interest you to explore the darker side of the human psyche?

I’m afraid of the darker side of the human psyche, actually. I never liked reading horror. I don’t even like most true crime. So it took many drafts to get the artwork right in this novel. I really had to go beyond my own comfort zone to accurately depict the lives and deaths of the homicide victims.

There were several references to F.Scott Fitzgerald in the book. It subliminally made me think of Gatsby and his extravagances hiding the person underneath. But I wondered if Fitzgerald is an influence?  

I was fascinated by Fitzgerald’s time in L.A., a chapter of his life that people don’t often think about when they imagine the young, carefree Jazz Age guy and his lovely wife drinking to excess and jumping into fountains. Fitzgerald’s career had washed up when he moved to L.A., but he hoped that writing screenplays would give him another crack at fame. It did float him financially for a while, and he met a new love, Sheilah Graham, and started his last book. But he was also basically dying of alcoholism and had periods of monstrous behavior. 

We think of L.A. as a city for the young and beautiful, and Fitzgerald as a writer for the young and beautiful. And yet, his time in L.A. is really about failure. Failure is another, less visible theme to L.A. life. It’s the opposite side of the fantasy of fulfilling your dreams.

How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals? 

I used to write every day in the morning, before going anywhere, until I had kids. Now I write whenever and wherever I can. I do like rolling little spiky massage balls under my feet for long writing sessions. It keeps me alert. 

I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

I know I wept at Where the Red Fern Grows, which I probably read in fifth grade. Any sad animal story will reduce me to a puddle. I also cry every single time I read Oscar Wilde’s stories for children, “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant.” My kids have scrupulously learned to avoid these at bedtime.

And finally having been thrilled by this novel I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it? 

I am working a sequel to Still Lives, currently called Gallerina. It continues Maggie’s exploration into deaths in the art world, but the lens switches from the art museum to the art school. Thematically, I’m probing the often emotionally (and sometimes sexually) charged relationships between older artists and younger acolytes, and how they can lead to fame and disaster.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Bridge of Clay - Markus Zusak

I am a little late to the party on this one but up to a point I was scared to read it! I invested so much in the Book Thief emotionally that the dichotomy was that Bridge of Clay wouldn’t be as good, or it would be better!! In actual fact it was neither!! But more of that later. 

‘Tough act to follow’ is a well used cliche these days but I do wonder when you’ve been the creator of a phenomenally successful book how you go about following it up. I read The Book Thief, loved it. In fact I chose it as my book when I was a distributor on World Book Night a few years ago. On the strength of that I read The Messenger (US I Am The Messenger) and found it to be a very different book. Not unenjoyable but hinting of Zusak’s potential diversity. I found `Bridge of Clay to have more in common with ‘The Book Thief, stylistically, as if Zusak has found a voice he’s comfortable with.

Bridge of Clay is a lengthy tome and my feeling is that it didn’t need to be this long to get the points across. But there is something about Zusak’s style and narrative that draws you along. Simply, it’s a story abut a family dealing with bereavements and broken hearts and how a collection of brothers stand together and basically raise themselves in the absence of parental supervision. It’s been done before and many of the emotions contained within the story are those we are all too familiar with. But of course everybody deals with these situations very differently and in this book of Zusak’s we learn how the five Dunbar boys deal with the tragic situation they are in.

One of Zusak’s strengths is the ability to characterise and having found an agreeable plateau in The Book Thief he extends that here in the characters we encounter. He doesn't hurry the depictions of his creations, as a reader you are given every opportunity to get to know the people within these covers. Even when they are a little enigmatic or ambiguous you have enough detail to understand why. I would suggest Zusak understands people and some of their motivations. He understands the possession thing and how that links with the essence of a person and can endure even when they are gone. Those aspects are subtly poignant and ably depicted in this book.

The titular bridge is both symbolic and concrete (no pun intended), quite a powerful symbol and it works here within the limits of building bridges cliches.  There is a sense of the sometime existential, sometime metaphoric with Zusak perhaps sitting on the fence without preference. Again death is a theme that occupies Zusak and I would think there are few who won’t be moved more than once whilst reading this. But I did get a sense of veering very slightly towards the edge of sentiment. 

There’s a quirkiness and off kilter poetic style to some of the phrasing and sentence construction that fuses an almost classic style with the idiomatic that is linguistically delightful. 

‘He stood above him by the couch, the morning still dark.
His hands were healed, from blisters to scars.
‘I’ll be away a while.’
The Murderer woke.
‘I’ll be back though.’

‘What was the real happiness between them?
What was the truth?
The true one?
Let’s start with the artwork.’

I didn’t feel it was ‘better’ than the Book Thief. It’s a different book with some enduring themes and different dynamics and so a contrasting emotional response is required of the reader. But equally I didn’t feel it was ‘worse’. I suppose I expected, wanted even, to be wowed. Don’t get me wrong I did enjoy the book enormously and I won’t hesitate to recommend it. But, for me anyway, it’s an example of how one globally successful book can spawn, perhaps unreasonable, expectations for the next. 

Ultimately though, like The Book Thief, Bridge of Clay is about love. There’s no more to be said. 

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Finest Story in the World and Mrs. Bathurst - Rudyard Kipling

My parents had the entire works of Rudyard Kipling. I remember them clearly. They had red binding with gold lettering and they lived in the bookshelf which we children had free access to. (My parents only censored my reading once. I borrowed my brother's copy of Lolita. They snatched it, rather roughly I felt, out of my hands before I'd barely started.) The Kiplings, along with a set of Robert Louis Stevenson, were some kind of paternity gift to my father when my elder brother was born I think but I'm not completely sure. At any rate my brother has the set now. As a kid of 8 or 9, who had just realised that reading was everything, I dabbled in and out of many of the volumes but I was too young really for Kipling in the sense of fully appreciating him. 

Social media throws many opportunities our way. It enables the merest of mortals connection with people one could only dream of connecting with in the outside world. I read these two Kipling stories on the recommendation of someone I connect with on social media. Someone I revere. No, an author I revere. No, no, a critically acclaimed author I revere. No, no, no a critically acclaimed, exceptionally gifted author I revere. No, no, no, no a critically acclaimed, exceptionally gifted author who is now one of my favourite authors of all time who I revere. The first was suggested following a discussion on longevity and authenticity in fiction with a passing nod to reincarnation and the second  - well, this critically acclaimed, exceptionally gifted, favourite author of all time whom I revere, would love to know my thoughts on Mrs. Bathurst. Reader, I can't refuse!! So here I go.

It's a fine story to be sure, the finest in the world? I'm not sure, but it is a delight. Charlie Mears is a bank clerk in London with aspirations to be a writer. He is acquainted with the narrator who allows him space to write and reads what the young man produces making some critical suggestions as young Charlie seems to be struggling. Ultimately the narrator gives Charlie five pounds for a nautical story, deciding he can write it better himself and suggesting the young man can buy numerous poetry books with the money. But as he questions Charlie about the detail in the story of a Greek galley slave it seems too authentic, to be from Charlie's imagination. And the narrator concludes that what he is hearing is an account of a past life, Kipling uses the term metempsychosis to describe this reincarnation. Charlie goes on later in the story to describe life on a Viking ship crossing the Atlantic.

You might be forgiven for thinking that all of that in itself is enough for an engrossing and mind provoking short story. And I guess it is, for Kipling shows himself to be a master storyteller that has you reading on rapt with wonder at what will transpire next. The short story often seems to be a under rated genre. Yet the skill required to offer a concise, complete and satisfying tale is considerable. Kipling has it in abundance. But the story continues quite delightfully.

Charlie Mears uses his five pounds to purchase volumes of poetry, notably Longfellow which enrapture him. He seems completely satisfied by the arrangement. The narrator confides in a delightful character, Grish Chunder, a delightful name too, about his past life suspicions with which Grish concurs, hinting that the intensity of Charlie's recall might well diminish were he to fall in love. Of course he does!! And he goes on to produce some unremarkable poetry. But he seems unable to continue to recall his past lives and what might have been the finest story in the world never is.

Something crucial to the art of the short storytelling is to offer the reader something to think about after the story has ended. Kipling gives us much to think about. The morality of the narrator in using what he believes to be the material for 'the finest story in the world' for a fiver and passing it off as the product of his own imagination could fuel reading group discussions for longer than many a novel might. Charlie's delight at having the funds to spend on poetry is delightful as is the inferred discomfort of the narrator at believing he is profiting from the youngster's memories.Then of course ideas about reincarnation which are not new but can still provoke many a heated discussion are thrown out for us quite calmly really. The idea that for the most part we do not remember our past lives because the knowledge might be damaging to us in our present carnation is an interesting one to consider. But beyond those issues I kept wondering whether Charlie's recounting of his past lives was an act of catharsis, a need within him to subconsciously detail his development from birth through to love. Until he had done that he wasn't free to love maybe? I also felt the narrator, older was gaining some kind of personal insight through the revelations of Charlie.

Egad! T'is a short story and I've already written more than I might for a four hundred page novel! Such is the power of Kipling.

I was able to read this story online here: -

So, go on. Give it a go!!

Mrs. Bathhurst, though, is a different matter. It remains enigmatic and almost ambiguous in its intent and conclusions by comparison with The Finest Story in the World.  But it's no less absorbing as a short story. The sea, ships and sailing again play a strong part in the story line. There are some marvellous descriptive passages. Another narrator driven tale, set in South Africa, Kipling's use of dialogue propels the story forward. Conversations between the narrator and Hooper, who works for the railroad and a couple of sailors concern topics like absence without leave and naval related incidents. The characterisations are well observed.  Pyecroft and Pritchard, who I endowed with accents of Estuary English, leap off the page at you. A colleague named Vickery is introduced, nicknamed 'Click' because of ill fitting dentures. But we get a way into the story before the titular Mrs. Bathurst is mentioned. We never meet her. All we know of her is through the conversation and observations of the sailors. Of course that is part of the storyteller's art. We learn of their perceptions. She seems to be a remarkable lady unaware of the impact she has on men possibly.  All we know of her is others' perceptions. But are their perceptions true ones? That, dear reader, is up to us to figure out!

We learn of Vickery's obsession with Mrs Bathurst, and inference of an affair, from his watching a newsreel, featuring her arriving in England, which he watches several nights consecutively. The suggestion of obsession bubbling under.  I found this quite surreal, yet quite understated. The newsreel is part of a travelling circus which ends as circuses do and subsequently Vickery has an audience with the ship's captain and mysteriously leaves, 'up-country that same evening'. But he doesn't appear to be seen again. Then Mr. Hooper describes the finding of two bodies beside the railway. They are badly burned. How? The description of one suggests it is Vickery but nothing is said of the other. Who is it? We are reminded of Vickery's comment that he is not a murderer and that his wife died six weeks before he came out?

Is it the job of a story teller to guide the reader to a conclusion? Or is it the job of the reader to discern the author's intent? It seems to me that Mrs. Bathurst raises those questions! But Kipling offers no answers!

I believe the story to be deliberately enigmatic; it raises so many questions of identity, perception and obsession. It's like a literary 'join the dots' for the reader.

Or is Kipling just playing with us?!

You can find the story here:

Friday, 8 February 2019

The Freedom Artist - Ben Okri

This is one of the books that leaves me breathless almost and wondering where to start to say anything about it that will do it the full justice it deserves. So many myriad thoughts and memories raced through my head. You know that thing where they say that your whole life flashes before your eyes just before you die? I had a sense of that with this book as I read the opening chapters. Images of these flickered in and out.

Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, 
Kafka, Orwell, His Dark Materials,  
The Scream,The Enchanted Wood, 
   Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Castle, The Trial. 
The Tower of Babel, Genesis.

It felt like Kafka had rewritten 1984! And I was elated to find Kafka alluded to in the latter stages of the book. It is the work and prose of a poet but not just a poet of words, a poet of thought with an all seeing eye. Not an angry, bitter reproachful poet but a philosophical, spiritual and optimistic poet. It’s offered as fiction yet it transcends definition as it presents as sometime fable, sometime allegory, sometime prophecy, sometime chronicle, sometime fairy tale, parts were almost Biblical with significant numerical allusions like 7 and 40, parts were magical. Page after page containing the wisdom of our ages. 

The notion that we are all living in a prison is not necessarily an original thought. It was touched on recently by Elizabeth Lowry in the magnificent Dark Water where the main narrator, Hiram Carver ,affirms ‘..we cling to our false certainty and call it freedom and we can’t see what we’ve really created out of freedom is a prison.’ Okri’s book takes the concept further and beyond. The book could be considered a manifesto for our times. It touches on so much of what is ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’, but Okri deals with it in a manner almost unemotional but with the result that it stirs emotion most profoundly. An economic use of prose with some simply stated sentences that are easy to read and complex to digest in part form this fiction. It’s as if the writer has subjected very word to scrutiny and ensured that he has chosen the exact, right one every time, the exact right number of words, nothing is wasted. The result is an exacting, powerful, elegant manifesto for our times.

I once opined that one of the ways in which a book might be deemed literature is if it were quotable in a meaningful sense. I felt that almost all of this book contained quotable dictums and epigrams. They jump out of practically every sentence. I have my favourites! And I have to restrict myself or I’d be quoting the whole book.

She understood that the world was not what it seemed. She understood that reversal was the way. She understood the true things was upside down. She grasped that those who thought they knew were ignorant, that those who thought they had power were powerless and that those who thought they knew themselves were in great darkness.

Listen with your heart and your wisdom. The world is a prison which you must transcend. Then you will know true freedom and you will find that it is very different to what anyone has ever said.

Okri identifies how as a race so many of us have lost our inherent spirituality. And if we could all recapture that we might have a chance of fleeing these restraints. The book is universal. There is no attempt to vilify any one separate discipline, politics, religion etc, as being the reason for our incarceration. 

As far as characterisations go the main cast is small, the supporting cast, though, almost infinite, for it is ourselves. Mirababa, a young boy, innocent until he loses his grandfather, Karnak ignorant until he loses love. Amalantis and Ruslana who either never lose their spirituality or seize the opportunity to develop it whilst maybe kicking against the perceived norms.

Thank you Head of Zeus for a limited edition proof copy. I think this is a great book. I think this is an important book. It will only lose its relevance and potency if things change rapidly. We all know they won’t. But this book urges us to remove our proverbial heads from our proverbial arses, look around at who we are and what we have become and - 


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Dirty Little Secrets - Jo Spain

May I begin by quoting this wonderful line from the book, ‘Whenever I met somebody who told me they didn’t read, I used to smile and nod and deduct thirty points or so from their IQ.” Other than character development what does it have to do with the story as a whole? Very little!! But I absolutely love it and I will confess I’ve thought something similar on occasions!! 

But to business. I read The Confession in 2017 and loved it. (Here’s a link to that review if you’ve the inclination to read it -

So I was delighted to grab a proof of Dirty Little Secrets from the wonderful folk at Quercus Books. 

Anticipation can be a dubious emotion, for disappointment is potentially on the cards. Not here though. Another triumph for Jo Spain. It’s only when you’ve finished the book that you understand what a skilful, controlled and measured plotter Ms. Spain is, resisting all temptation to throw caution to the wind and expose these people and all their flaws in one fell blast.

The basic premise of the novel is not a new one; a small community, a crime, a gradual unfolding of the, sometimes harrowing, sometimes seedy, sometimes immoral, sometimes heartbreaking, pasts of the characters involved. But it’s how you deal with that premise that counts. As an author can you bring some originality to it? Well, Jo Spain can, and has, and how!

There are six neighbours with six secrets and six reasons to want Olive Collins dead. The novel is structurally very cleverly with third person narratives for all of the neighbours and the two police persons involved and a first person narrative for Olive which is so smart in directing the readers’ feelings about Olive and her neighbours.

Olive Collins is a wonderful character. We see her from her own perspective and the perspective of others, creating a quite contradictory picture. It raises absorbing considerations of how one’s own perspective of oneself differs from others. Do we see our own flaws? Does Olive? Wonderful fodder for reading groups to discuss here.

The atmosphere of a small, closed community, although they aren’t really a community in the real sense of the word, is well sustained. Like The Confession it’s an ‘onion’ story as layer after layer is peeled back before we can actually get to the truth of what happened. And each of these dysfunctional residents have their own defective demons to grapple with. No second guessing here, they maintain their facades until this tragic death and police suspicions chip away at their decaying fascias. 

No character is extraneous and all are developed sufficiently for the reader to engage with although many are not instantly likeable. Interesting development throughout the book that changes the readers’ perceptions of some of the personnel. I hope that’s not a spoiler.   

If you’re a Jo Spain fan there is nothing you won’t love about this story. It’ll grip you to the end. And what an end!! I will confess I did suspect something along those lines but I was unsure until the very last twist! It’s delicious! And if you’ve never read a Jo Spain book before this is as good a place as any to start. But be warned you’ll be seeking out more of her work before the end page of this one is closed. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

RETRO REVIEWIING: The Detective Branch - Andrew Pepper

Okay, so this is the very first online review I wrote so it seems fitting it should be the very last retro review I post! Now all my reviews are neatly collected on this blog which, as something of a completist, satisfies me. To all those people who have read these posts, thank you so much. I appreciate it more than you'll ever know. 

I signed up to Real Readers sometime in 2010 and I didn't know what to expect, if anything. It was a while after I signed up that I received this book. I was delighted!! I almost couldn't believe it! I'd been sent a book! So I set to, to read it and review it. I did a lousy job!! I've always kept a record of my reading and jotted down notes about the books I'd read. But this was the first time since my student days thatI really had to think about what I was reading and what I wanted to say about it. From reading this review I'd like to believe I have developed as a reviewer. But I made such a mess of the brief for posting online. Basically Real Readers sent you the book, you read and reviewed it and posted your review in as many places as you could, pasting the links on the Real Readers website.  I was a novice and I had NO IDEA where to post my review.  I think I only posted it to Amazon in the end and I got that link wrong!! So I shrugged and thought, so be it. Doubt I'll ever hear from them again. Fair enough. Months went by and I forgot all about it. Then another book arrived. It was Emylia Hall's Book of Summers, a proof copy and I was ecstatic. The rest, as they say, is history. I researched all the places I could post reviews and did so with zeal. Real Readers reckoned at one point I was their most prolific reviewer! That made me very happy. However I was still a few years off from starting my own blog!! 

So here it is, a review of Andrew Pepper's fourth Inspector Pyke book published in February 2010. 

This was my first introduction to Inspector Pyke. I'm not saying it will definitely be my last but I won't rush to read another. There was plenty going on in the book; detailed descriptions of Victorian London in the early part. But I felt it was as if the writer was saying,'I've done all this research and I'm gonna include every last detail.'The plot developed as a complex web of intrigue with multi-faceted and spurious characters who were quite hard to like including Pyke himself.
Perhaps I read too much crime fiction but it was obvious as soon as there was mention of a policeman at the first crime scene that corruption was probably the main theme.And with the murder of a man of the cloth the Church had a major role too. It was a question of who, how and why.
I thought there was something of an homage to Dickens, Ebenezer Druitt would not have been out of place in a Dicken's yarn and images of Sikes and Nancy floated through my mind as I read of Culpepper and his violence.
I felt overall that the writer was trying too hard and the book was overlong. In fact it was the last quarter of the book where I felt the pace quickened and the quality of writing improved. I engaged more towards the end of the book after Pyke was imprisoned and I was keen to discover the final denouement.

Definitely I've read better crime fiction but equally I have read worse.